Not just “long time ago,” as a Pete Seeger song could say. This is about wiping out species, the big business destruction of a source of food on the high seas and the killing of the environment. It was a veteran of deep-sea fishing off the Argentine mainland, on the continental shelf but also in distant waters, who supplied me with a distressing report on the destruction of fishery resources.
Jorge ‘Coco’ Miller, aged 76, spent his working life at sea. He could not get his father’s permission to join a trawler when he was 16, but no sooner had he turned 18 he left home. “You couldn’t leave the country until you were 22 in those days,” he remembers. Probably because they wanted to keep youth here until their military service was done. But as a teenager Miller could go to Mar del Plata to train in a risk-ridden job: “I knew there was good money even if it was a tough life.” Men have to retire at 52. He wanted to stay on. Because of his track record he was allowed to work until he was 58. That was 18 years ago, but in Mar del Plata today he is still remembered as ‘El Viejo,’ considered as a mark of seniority and respect. One of his sons followed him into the fishing business, now mostly shrimpers, concentrating their catch further south in Patagonia.
Argentina has a coast line of nearly 5,000 kilometres, but it has never had a big enough fleet to cover that stretch. The port of Mar del Plata was built in 1922 and is still the biggest, even though catches out of that resort city are shrinking as ships have to sail further south, to compete in some way with the international fleets operating just outside the territorial platform, or that is what they say. Most of the bigger coastal cities, from Madryn south, through San Antonio Este, and down to Comodoro Rivadavia, are now used as trawler bases.
Coco Miller spoke as a knowledgeable veteran in the fishing business. But not as an impressive optimist. As recent FAO figures go, in 2014 Argentina’s total marine catch totalled 815,355 tons, which marked an increase in catches in the historical percentage of crustaceans although down on the previous year’s catches. The challenge for the Argentine fishing industry aims at value-added units, and the pursuit of market opportunities in species that have a significant increase. But the local figures do not make a big impact on the international fleets, mainly Far Eastern. For the same year (2014) China took 14,811,390 tons, the United States 4,954,467 tons, Chile 2,175,486 tons and Spain 1,103,537 tons, for example.
“The business here started with few ships,” Coco Miller said. “When I began, late ’60s, there were four or five vessels doing the tuna catch and nine or ten more, mainly involved with taking out hake [merluza].”
Miller lives with his wife and some of his six children in Federación, the ‘new’ town in the northernmost department of Entre Ríos. The city today succeeded the one that was sunk in the River Uruguay when the Salto Grande dam was opened during the last dictatorship. Family connections, established in the old town, took him and his family back there after retirement. Federación today is like a giant gated community, without the walls. It is known for its thermal baths, among the best in the country, developed in the 1990s. The baths allowed the town to restart life. Recent and new housing is everywhere, as much as half of it waiting for short-let tourists to flood in to the baths.
Miller goes out into the Salto Grande lake in his motor boat, almost every day, and he goes fishing. “Sometimes I might get a few, often only a bagre or a boga.”
“The big change and kind of fresh beginning that I remember was when the Belgians came to Mar del Plata. Masters and crews brought their whole families and belongings, all they could load. It was a very big convoy that docked at Mar del Plata. The Belgians can be said to have started the deep-sea trawling here. Italians, with the Spaniards, had a strong hold on the development of fishing from way back.
“A lot of those small yellow ships that you still see docked in Mar del Plata, which are a postcard view for tourists, belonged originally to Italian masters and their workers.
“In those days, in my youth, the most we went out for was about five or six hours and we came home full. Now you have to sail south two-and-a-half or three days. If you look through the tracer [ecosonda] now the fish detectors show only clear water, no fish. Those foreign fleets cleaned it all out. In the days of president [Carlos Saúl] Menem he sent Felipe Solá, then the director of fisheries, to sell fishing permits for Argentine waters in just about every country with a substantial industry. Solá spent about two years selling licences.
“Those licences allowed European and Far Eastern factory ships to clean out the water. They worked so hard until there was nothing left, and the ships moved south. Just about every Argentine government sold licences everywhere,” he says.They took hake, anchovy, tuna, king crabs, squid and mussels.
“Our ships got some of that when they could get closer to the coast. Shrimp is the big choice now. There’s plenty, because the hake and other fish are not available to feed on shrimp. So they grow more.
“The foreign ships spread their nets for 50 or 60 days until they have caught over 1,000 tons. They picked out the big fish mainly, the medium-sized have lower prices. The smaller fish were thrown back in but they were dead, crushed in the nets or dying or suffocated by the rapid removal from their pressure levels they have in the deep.
“So the big fish were killed and prevented from spreading their eggs. But the big fish were chosen because they fetched higher prices, but no eggs. Double damage. And the smaller fish either spread much less in eggs, or were too young to spread any yet. And the fish were dead. So double damage, again.”
“A lot has changed, it is not easy nowadays.”
As he walked into the house to fetch his tackle, Coco Miller said he thought that he’d best go out in his own boat on the lake next morning.
(*)Former Editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007)